The Road to Mandalay

Although it slightly whiffs the ending, The Road to Mandalay is a quietly moving and empathetic portrait of life as an undocumented immigrant.

Disclaimer: The following review was made possible thanks to a screener from the film’s UK distributor, Day for Night Films.

The Road to Mandalay opens on a long, static shot of a river, flanked either side by long tall grass.  Eventually, we witness a young Burmese woman, Lien Ching (Ke-xi Wu), board a rubber dingy and be rowed briefly downstream to a waiting bike, which will take her to a truck that she is running late for full of people just like her in the middle of their journey to Thailand.  There’s a stillness to this shot, the only movement other than that of the dingy being the Burmese flag in the far-off background, and even the camera’s eventual pan to track Lien and the nameless rower as they pass by feels stiflingly lifeless.  It runs uninterrupted for about three minutes, with no dangers or complications or much of any activity beyond a brief admonishment over currency once Lien reaches the next stage of her transport.

Such is the life of an undocumented immigrant.  The Road to Mandalay is a slow, sparse, quiet film.  One might expect a drama about undocumented immigrants to be a heavy, crushing affair, mixing relentless misery and extended sequences of characters struggling to survive with tense encounters with a law enforcement that can destroy what meagre scraps of a life they’ve managed to pull together in an instance over the slightest mistake.  But writer-director Midi Z, previous of Ice Poison, largely aims for something different entirely.  Sure, Lien is only ever surviving rather than living, and there are sequences dedicated to border crossings and being caught by the police, but both are entirely deliberately devoid of action and tension.  One of Lien’s roommates throws herself out of a nearby window when confronted with the possibility of the arrest, but the camera remains fixed on Lien and never follows the suicide attempt, whilst the border crossing is nothing more than a performative transaction between the smugglers and border security, motions that both parties lifelessly go through to keep up the veneer of law-abiding professionalism.

In fact, rather than a parade of disasters and trauma – Z even pointedly refuses to show us a scene in which Lien’s sister, Hua who made the journey over to Bangkok before Lien, throws Lien out of her accommodation on the false accusation that Lien was stealing money from her – what Z instead posits breaks undocumented immigrants is the relentless crushing boredom.  Lien has dreams of getting a sales job in the city, being an educated woman capable of rewarding work, but her lack of a work permit instead forces her to work extensive 14-hour days doing menial work in back-kitchens and factories for mediocre pay.  It’s exhausting, tiring, thankless work, but it’s all she can get and all she can look forward to until her permits can come in – prospective city employers, introduced by various friends of Liang who used to work for them, keep re-iterating the need for a work permit despite prior experiences, as if the companies involved are only now following the letter of the law because of added attention put upon them.

And in that meantime, there are bills to pay, families back home to support, rent to fork over, and money to stow away for the next time that word of available permits comes down the line, and always with the crutch that these permits may actually be less than worthless.  Liang keeps trying to make her own way, but the reality is that she is hopelessly bound and reliant upon the charity and kindness of others, which could be snatched away at any moment for reasons outside of her control.  Even then, despite the quiet desperation inherent to her entire existence, there are still those out there who would do nothing but prey upon and take advantage of people like Liang.  Deliberately wasting her money on “permits” that have no value, pressuring her and her friends into accepting a woefully-inadequate settlement for a workplace accident that leaves the victim unable to work anymore…

In the film’s most quietly ingenious play, Mandalay personifies this predatory power structure by also tying it together with the issue of “Nice Guy” misogyny through one of Liang’s fellow immigrants.  We first meet A-kuo (Ko Kai) when everybody is boarding the truck from Burma to Bangkok.  He gives up the more-expensive front seat he’d paid for so that she doesn’t have to ride in the trunk, and later, when they arrive in Bangkok, he gives her his number and promises her a job and a place to stay should she need them.  It appears to be a kind gesture born out of a desire to foster a support system that otherwise does not exist for people like themselves.  Except that, as the film rolls on, he just won’t stop turning up in her life, and he won’t stop buying her things, and he won’t stop trying to crush her aspirations for a better life through ‘pragmatic’ reasoning, and he also won’t stop pushing himself upon her.

The film never explicitly states that A-kuo is doing all of this with the understanding that she will have sex with him and remain steadfastly loyal to him, but it doesn’t have to.  Z’s stark, static direction – helped along by some striking cinematography by Tom Fan – puts the implication unflinchingly centre.  And as Liang has to resist A-kuo’s attempts to metaphorically prostitute her, she also has to resist the lure of literal prostitution, something that almost all of her friends before her eventually submitted to out of desperation and which they keep trying to protect her from.  This could all form the basis of an angry, depressing slog of a film, but Midi Z instead takes a more empathetic approach.  There’s noticeable rage at the system that deliberately punishes people like Liang trying to make a better life for themselves through exorbitantly high permit prices whilst still profiting from the middle men that largely are trying to help, but instead there’s largely a tiredness at the film’s centre.  A quietly burning hope, shared by Liang, that things may eventually get better, but a slowly crushing realisation that they probably won’t.

Much of this power can also be attributed to an absolutely stellar lead turn from Ke-xi Wu.  She’s why the film never becomes a miserablist wallow and where that slowly-extinguished spark of hope comes from.  Dialogue is rare, unsurprisingly for an Asian art-house movie, and direct and measured when it does show up, so we are forced to pay more attention to Wu’s facial expressions for insights into Liang’s thoughts and mental state, and it is a deceptively expressive face.  Liang spends much of her time in Bangkok trying to keep her head down and make the best out of what she can, necessitating an attempted constant stonewall expression, but it’s one that is impossible to keep up.  There’s too much personal conflict, too much lingering hope, too much monotony wearing her down, and the way that Wu’s face communicates a slowly crumbling resolve as the days turn to weeks turn to potentially-months is surprisingly devastating to witness unfold.  The inevitable moment when she finally cracks is one of the best scenes I have seen all year, and it’s all the more powerful for its understated nature.

Unfortunately, without spoiling, despite a fantastic 90 minutes beforehand that was getting me all set to name the film one of 2017’s best – which, considering the year so far, is really saying something – The Road to Mandalay doesn’t quite manage to stick the landing.  As the film moves towards its conclusion, Z takes a left-turn into mild surrealism in order to communicate the closing stages of his narrative, and whilst they fit the film thematically, in practice they jar awkwardly with the direct realist nature of the rest of the film.  This goes double for the ending which, again, thematically makes complete sense, but in practice either clashes too heavily with everything up to then or is just plain too cruel a way to close out – which of those it is will likely vary on a viewer by viewer basis.

That said, it’s not the kind of whiffed ending that discredits all of the goodwill built up beforehand; merely the kind that stops a great movie from becoming an all-timer.  If nothing else, The Road to Mandalay deserves to be seen for Ke-xi Wu’s tremendous central performance alone; the kind of understated yet utterly devastating performance that all acting workshops should be teaching classes on.  Whilst the rest of the film, outside of the ending, is providing the back-up that she deserves, with some fantastic cinematography, loaded and always-timely subtext, and a tangible empathy for its central protagonist that always keeps the film far away from falling into a pit of misery.  In its best moments, The Road to Mandalay is not a film I will be forgetting any time soon, and you should absolutely check it out.

The Road to Mandalay is now playing in selected UK cinemas.

Callum Petch has nothing funny left to say.

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